The nebula known as W51 is one of the most active star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. First identified in 1958 by radio telescopes, it makes a rich cosmic tapestry in this image from NASA’s recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE & MIPSGAL Teams.
Located about 17,000 light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Aquila in the night sky, W51 is about 350 light-years across. It is almost invisible to telescopes that collect visible light, because that light is blocked by interstellar dust clouds that lie between W51 and Earth. But longer wavelengths of light, including radio and infrared, can pass unencumbered through the dust. When viewed in infrared by Spitzer, W51 is a spectacular sight: Its total infrared emission is the equivalent of 20 million Suns.
If you could see it with your naked eye, this dense cloud of gas and dust would appear about as large as the full Moon. The Orion Nebula – another well-known star-forming region and a favourite for amateur astronomers – occupies about the same size area in the sky. But W51 is actually much farther from Earth than Orion and thus much larger, and it’s about 75 times more ...